Berlin airport opening delayed to March

FRANKFURT Thu May 17, 2012 12:30pm EDT

1 of 3. People take a tour of the site of the new Berlin Brandenburg airport outside Berlin, May 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The opening of Berlin's new airport has been pushed back nine months to March 17 after problems with fire safety systems, dealing an embarrassing blow to the German capital and angering airlines.

Manfred Koertgen, the airport's managing director for technical issues, has been sacked and will leave the role on June 1, Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit told reporters on Thursday.

"He had trouble recognising when things were going wrong," Wowereit said. The airport also terminated the contract of the company planning it.

Berlin Brandenburg had been scheduled to open on June 3. On May 8, authorities said that the opening was being delayed, although only by a few months, until after the summer break.

Wowereit said on Thursday the authorities had not wanted to accept a temporary solution to the safety problems and so it was necessary to wait until the full fire-safety system was operational, expected to be in December.

However, moving into the airport over the winter would bring weather-related risks, so a date in March was chosen.

The airport operator also said there had been other issues during the testing phase, as building work prevented some scenarios being tested, while problems also arose with the operation of the doors, among others.

The three firms supplying large parts of the fire safety systems - Siemens (SIEGn.DE), Bosch and imtech - cautioned updated planning documents had to be submitted by mid-June in order for the new timetable of works to be feasible.

The capital's long-awaited new airport, which will be Germany's third largest behind Frankfurt and Munich, will replace Tegel and Schoenefeld, both dating from the Cold War.

After a decade-long struggle to get planning permission, the airport had been due to open in October 2011. That date was pushed back in June 2010, so that the security areas could be expanded to fit new scanning systems.

The 2.5 billion euro airport aims to attract up to 27 million passengers a year initially, making it about half the size of Germany's main airport in Frankfurt and less than a third the size of the world's busiest airport in Atlanta.

Wowereit said the three largest airlines due to operate from the new airport - Air Berlin (AB1.DE), Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and easyJet (EZJ.L) - would do everything possible to maintain flight schedules at the city's existing airports.

HUB HOPES

The three had planned to use the new airport to expand services from Berlin, in particular Air Berlin which had hoped to use the new BBI airport as a hub for long-haul with the help of its largest shareholder, Gulf-based airline Etihad.

"This is completely unacceptable and does irreparable damage to the image of Berlin as an air traffic hub," Air Berlin chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn said, adding it would be nearly impossible to implement its winter flight programme with long-haul flights.

German flagship airline Lufthansa, which has said it expected compensation, said the delay was regrettable. "However, the fact that a stable and safe operation of the airport can only be ensured in March 2013 means that it was the right move to delay the opening," a spokesman said.

Rainer Schwarz, head of the new airport, said he could not put a figure on how much the delay would cost, adding no formal compensation claims had been made.

The costs of keeping the two older airports open had previously been put at about 15 million euros per month.

EasyJet welcomed the clarity on the new date and said it would continue to operate flights from Schoenefeld, including new planned routes to Marrakech, Mykonos and Rhodes.

(Additional reporting by Christoph Steitz; Editing by Dan Lalor and William Hardy)